Passion got Liu Yifei through the tough training and filming for Mulan
Passion for playing the warrior got actress Liu Yifei through tough training and filming
After changing its release date three times since its world premiere in Los Angeles on March 9, Mulan will finally be on the big screen on Sept 4 in countries where cinemas are open, including Singapore, and Disney+ where the streaming service is available.
Back in March when we met Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei and New Zealand director Niki Caro at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown hotel to talk about the US$200 million (S$271.4m) live-action Disney film, nobody had any idea how Covid-19 would spread around the world.
At that time, only China had closed cinemas, and what was on everyone's mind was the loss of revenue from that major market, especially given the subject of the film.
Liu, who was born in Wuhan, Hubei, and still has family in the city where the virus broke out last December, voiced her concerns.
She said: "My grandma is still in Wuhan and she's doing great. People are aware of themselves and being careful for others too. For me, I just hope that this will work out soon and get better and better day by day."
The film-makers made the 33-year-old, who has appeared in films like The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Love In Disguise (2009), The Four film series (2012-2014) and The Assassins (2012), work to land the star-making title role.
Caro, 53, said they auditioned more than 1,000 girls during a year-long worldwide search, going almost village to village in China.
After a 14-hour flight from Beijing to Los Angeles and a sleepless night, Liu's audition was moved up the following day to an earlier slot.
The acting audition was two hours long - five scenes and five pages of dialogue. Then she was sent to a gym with a personal trainer to do a 90-minute workout to test her physical limits.
According to Caro, she never complained, never asked for a break and nailed the part.
Liu said of the process: "Even in my wildest dreams, I never really imagined that I would work in this big movie. So of course I'm nervous. I asked for a script to look at and I took the whole day to process it. And then I did my homework.
"I wrote down notes throughout the flight. But all I could do was just throw myself into that experience. I couldn't think of any results. And then after that, I went through that physical training. Everything I did, they recorded. Every time I was done with something, the trainer would write something in a book."
Caro's challenge was to update the 1998 animated musical Disney film of the same name to resonate with young viewers today, and keep the authenticity that made the original so beloved. She was clear from the outset that even though Mulan was a Disney movie, it was not going to be a princess movie.
In the film, based on the Chinese folk poem The Ballad of Mulan, the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that every family has to send one man to serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders (led by Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li).
Since Mulan's father (Tzi Ma) is frail and crippled, she disguises herself as a man, steals his horse, armour and sword, and takes his place in war under the Commander's (Donnie Yen) training.
It takes everything the young girl has to summon her inner warrior and focus on her mission to protect her fellow soldiers and save her country.
There were 75 shooting days in New Zealand and China in the schedule, some very physically demanding, especially when the battle scenes were shot.
The cast was in boot camp for months, doing weight training and stunts, and Liu also had to look like a soldier.
"On some projects, you only train with a sword or only martial arts," she said. "But this time, they really wanted to get my body prepared overall, so I did basic physical training. It was helpful but tough. Every day, the first thing I did was work out for two hours. And then two hours again for martial arts."
Liu talked about what the message of the movie is for her.
"Don't limit yourself. Mulan never gives up. She has the courage to look deep inside herself and to make choices to be the best version of herself.
"Every night when I did my homework, I found something new. That passion got me through the next day's training. Each day I allowed myself to forget who I am for the moment. You have to kind of lose yourself and not think about how brave Mulan is. The emotion that I felt for the character would really push me through the journey that I needed for training or for shooting. That feeling is here," she said, gesturing to her heart.
The writer is the chair of the board of directors of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a non-profit organisation of entertainment journalists that also organises the annual Golden Globe Awards.